CAIRO — A little over a year ago, on the eve of the revolution that ousted Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Hisham Kassem was poised to launch the Arab world’s first independently owned multimedia news company. But the revolution failed to redeem its promise of full democracy, press freedoms deteriorated, the economy tanked, and Kassem’s shareholders abandoned him.
“Investors started missing payments in June,” Kassem says from his half-finished offices in downtown Cairo. “By late August I was cash-strapped.”
Kassem, who during the twilight of the Mubarak regime did as much as anyone to create pockets of oxygen for hard-hitting journalism, says he is confident that his Egyptian shareholders will return from the sidelines once the country stabilizes politically. Though recent elections turned out an Islamist-dominated parliament, he notes, the process was smooth, setting the stage for a presidential election this year and the end to an unpopular military-led interim government. Venture capitalists are showing renewed interest in his enterprise, the name of which he declines to divulge, and, he said, he’s getting fresh offers for shares.
Even Kassem admits, however, that there is no guarantee Egypt’s national security apparatus, which survived the revolution more or less intact, will go quietly.
During the last few years of Mubarak’s rule, the country’s draconian press laws were loosened so that criticism of the regime was tolerated, if grudgingly and arbitrarily, and independent journals and magazines proliferated. But even that modest flowering was crushed by the ruling military council not long after Mubarak’s removal, according to journalists, with what they suspect is a stealth campaign of harassment.
“The pressure is now worse than ever,” says Ibrahim Eissa, an activist and publisher who last spring launched Tahrir, a newspaper and broadcast company named after the square that served as the locus of the anti-Mubarak movement. “The government passes laws that make it harder to publish. Now, anyone can declare themselves slandered by a story and demand fines. Of course, it’s impossible to say who’s behind these attacks.”
Investor interest in Egypt’s media sector and its enormous growth potential remains high, however. Though less than a fifth of the country’s 85 million people read daily newspapers, that could change if outlets like Kassem’s venture, which will generate print, television, radio and Web-driven content, take root. Internet usage is still relatively low, which means newspapers, radio and television broadcasters will be commercially sustainable for some time. Plus, the country’s state-run press and broadcasters, as unpopular as they are costly to run, are likely to consolidate or disappear altogether, creating new market share for independents.
Buoyed by such projections, Kassem says he will not hesitate to reengage the spooks and functionaries whose job it is to obscure truth from power. In the late 1990s he launched the English-language Cairo Times, a general interest monthly and a must-read for Cairenes outraged at Mubarak’s brutality. E xhausted, he closed shop after several years of prolonged skirmishes with regime censors as the only independent publication of its kind. In 2003 he was recruited to edit Al Masry Al Youm, an independent daily newspaper, and under his watch it evolved into an authentic and profitable dissenting voice.
Issandr El Amrani, who worked for Kassem at the Cairo Times as a journeyman reporter, remembers his old boss as a Middle East H.L. Mencken, equal parts stern, parsimonious and shrewd. “He proved you can make a successful business out of a good publication,” says Amrani, who now edits The Arabist Web site. “And that was before there was so much to write and read about.”
In 2008, Kassem resigned from Al Masry Al Youm to begin the spadework for a landmark Arab media conglomerate. He toured the world’s great newsrooms to learn how to develop his own news management system and organized a road show to line up 30 million pounds (about $5.2 million) in start-up capital — under Egypt’s press law, he is prohibited from raising funds from non-Egyptians.
As 2010 approached, he had signed a lease for two floors of prime office space and he was negotiating with an architect the fine points of the floor plan, from the thickness of sound-proofing tiles in the recording studios to the wattage of recessed halogen bulbs in the newsroom. He was just about to start hiring staff when the rebellion against Mubarak gripped the nation and consumed the world.
A push for ‘good governance’
Today, despite Egypt’s difficult economic environment, Kassem is optimistic. In a few weeks, he says, he’ll be accepting applications for the 60 or so positions that will round out the staff and he expects some 5,000 submissions. “I’m not exaggerating when I say every journalist in town wants to join us,” he says.
The vacant offices are silent except for the whir of a small refrigerator and the din of Cairo’s relentless traffic that pulses up from below. Kassem recalls how, when he was running the Cairo Times, he was ordered by the censors to stop reporting on a $60 billion residential and water-irrigation development, which like so many Pharaonic projects conceived under Mubarak was regarded as a corrupt land grab for regime cronies.
“We were told ‘don’t touch it’ and we had to leave it alone.” he said. “No more. There needs to be an end to graft and corruption and a move to good governance and if I’m doing my job here, it can happen.”